The Fabelmans, a middle-class Jewish family, navigate the complexities of artistic drive, personal responsibility, and the enigma of talent and happiness in Steven Spielberg’s latest film. Michelle Williams stars as Mitzi, the matriarch and former concert pianist turned homemaker and piano teacher. Paul Dano plays Burt, the patriarch and scientist who spends his free time shooting home movies.
The film follows 8-year-old Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), who becomes enamored with filmmaking after watching a train crash scene in “The Greatest Show on Earth.” This sets off a series of events that highlight the difficulties of parenthood and the sacrifices made for one’s artistic pursuits. Sammy’s talent is undeniable, as evidenced by his early films that display mastery in editing, suspense-building, and visual humor.
But the film is not just about a prodigy’s rise to fame. It delves into the intricacies of marriage and family dynamics, exploring the relationship between Mitzi and Burt and the contrasting dynamic she shares with Burt’s best friend, Benny Loewy (Seth Rogen). Benny’s talent lies in his ability to connect with and understand the needs of the Fabelman family, a stark contrast to Burt’s more controlled and unexciting demeanor.
Benny is as much a part of the family as Burt and Mitzi, and it’s clear that Mitzi has a closer connection to Benny than Burt. Benny is a gifted friend, parent, and mate, and Mitzi can sense that, despite Burt being a good husband and father, he is fundamentally unexciting and sometimes controlling.
As Sammy grows into an adolescent and his skills as a filmmaker continue to flourish, he begins to experiment with different techniques to express himself through his art. He becomes interested in how he can manipulate film to create new effects, such as the scene in his Western film where he punched holes in the film to make it look like toy guns were firing blanks. This imaginative approach earns him a merit badge for photography and recognition from his fellow Eagle Scouts, who he directs in a World War II combat film.
The Fabelman family faces new challenges when they move to California, where they become the only Jewish family in a school filled with tall, conventionally good-looking WASPs. This new environment is hard on Sammy, who is teased and tormented by his classmates for his heritage. Sammy figures out that a camera can be used not only to tell stories and create art, but also to win friends, manipulate enemies, woo prospective partners, glamorize and humiliate, show a better self, protect against hurt, smooth out or obstruct the truth, and even lie.
The film explores the complex relationship between art and life, and the struggle to find a balance between personal ambition and family responsibility. Through Sammy’s journey as an artist, the film asks questions about where talent comes from and what it means to be a successful and happy person. The origin of talent is a central theme in the film, as the characters contemplate the role of genes, conditioning, and trauma in the development of their gifts. Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a circus performer and storyteller, provides a crucial perspective, explaining the lifelong conflict artists face between committing to their talent and neglecting their loved ones.
Steven Spielberg is one of my favorite directors, if movies are magic, he is a sorcerer, so watching his origin story feels like a very special moment, like we are sort of (remember, the movie is semi-autobiographical, but most of it is fact) invited inside his memory palace, this wonderful place where we learn what makes Spielberg, well, Spielberg.
Ultimately, the film highlights the idea that talent can come from anywhere and that success is not just determined by genetics, psyche, or conditioning. Benny serves as a testament to this, as he proves that with hard work, dedication, and a love for life, anyone can find happiness and fulfillment through their talents. The film is a tribute to the miracle of talent and the complexities of family dynamics, and a meditation on the meaning of happiness and success in life.